Good People are (Still) Doing Most of the Harm in the World


In her prescient book, God of the Machine, Isabel Paterson coined the phrase “the humanitarian with a guillotine.” Writing in 1943, a decade after America’s disastrous New Deal was enacted, she observed that “Most of the harm in the world is done by good people…”

Last week’s tribunal ruling that Uber drivers cannot be self-employed is just the latest reminder that this is still true. Good people are still, in the name of social good, doing most of the harm in society by demanding more government intervention into our private economic exchanges.

I’m sure that Tim Roache, who is General secretary of the union that brought the case against Uber, and his colleagues are good people with good intentions. But having the best of intentions doesn’t make one immune from producing the worst of consequences. They are fine candidates for the label: humanitarians with guillotines.

It doesn’t matter what line of legal reasoning the judge used in ruling against Uber. The law today is not a coherent whole, but a contradictory mass that can be used to justify almost any legal argument. All that matters is that raising the cost to Uber of hiring drivers will leave all drivers worse off in the long-run than they otherwise would have been.

Sound economic reasoning tells us that raising the cost of using labour reduces the demand for it. Fewer drivers (than there otherwise would have been) means higher fares, which will mean less demand for Uber rides and thus less income for Uber drivers. How much less only time and Uber’s data will tell.

As it stands, a group of good people intent on doing social good through the brute force of law have beheaded the future economic prospects of Uber drivers. (And not to mention reduced the value that Uber adds to the lives of its millions of customers).

There are two underlying problems which have led to this harmful and unintended outcome. The first being a widespread belief in the state as a force for social good. The second being the political system that enables special interest groups to erode economic freedoms, i.e. statism.

The GMB, rather like an unhappy child, has stamped its feet and loudly appealed to Authority. It has demanded that the terms of the economic exchanges between Uber and its drivers be determined by government decree and not mutual consent. This is a distinctly illiberal urge. A tantrum writ large. It’s not fair! They cry, like the screaming child who believes everyone should give him everything he wants.

Unless Uber is successful in appealing the ruling, the GMB has what it wants. If Uber’s appeal fails, then ‘do as we say or else’ has won. That’s what the law boils down to, after all.

If the GMB union’s members had to point the guns themselves to make Uber’s management comply, then I’m sure they wouldn’t. After all, violence is against the moral principles that almost everyone in our society lives by. But, we have an agency called the government and a concept called The State to which we can outsource violence and hide it in plain sight from our conscience. The government carries out coercion in a centralised, systematic and organised way. It does it on a scale no one else could achieve.

Because most people today equate legality with morality, it’s a way of using violence without feeling guilty or ashamed. For people who have a strong urge to control others, but who do have a conscience, this is a solution. But for prosperity in the UK and for general human progress it is a serious problem. Its biggest obstacle, actually.

So, the lesson is this: beware good people in large groups who are absolutely convinced that they can improve your life through the brute force of law. Their every misguided attempt will leave you worse off in a way that is impossible to escape – because it’s the law. Every victory they claim is actually a loss to peaceful, prosperous and progressive society.

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